Pubdate: Thu, 02 Sep, 1999
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 1999 Mercury Center
Author: Hallye Jordan
Section: page 1
Note: Hallye Jordan may be contacted at  or (916)
Related: Complete SJMN coverage at 


SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Gray Davis and a key legislator reached a compromise
Wednesday that would legalize the underground needle-exchange programs that
Santa Clara and other counties have been running to stem the spread of the
AIDS virus among drug addicts.

Under the agreement, cities and counties that authorize needle-exchange
programs using emergency public-health ordinances would be immune from

The new measure, negotiated by the governor's aides, is a slimmed-down
version of a similar bill that the Legislature passed last week but that
aides said Davis would veto.

The governor's spokesman, however, cautioned that tinkering with this new
bill could derail it. "The governor doesn't want to see this expand beyond
the narrow scope that was discussed," Michael Bustamante said.

Dr. Martin Fenstersheib, director of the Santa Clara County Department of
Health, said the bill would encourage programs that many health officials
believe save lives. "The communities that have the need and desire will be
able to proceed, and those that are operating underground . . . can begin
operating within the law," he said.

Several communities that have flirted with creating similar programs have
backed down because state law prohibits them. San Francisco, Berkeley,
Santa Cruz and Los Angeles have enacted programs under emergency
ordinances, which require them to be renewed every two weeks.

Santa Clara County's program went underground three years ago when former
state Attorney General Dan Lungren threatened county supervisors with
lawsuits or jail. The current program, which officials believe reaches only
about one-third of the county's estimated 15,000 drug addicts, operates
with the tacit approval of county officials and San Jose police.

Fenstersheib said legalizing needle-exchange programs would allow the
county to expand its operation and hire a full-time staff. Currently the
program is run on a shoestring budget of $40,000 a year by volunteers who
distribute clean hypodermic needles at three San Jose sites.

The author of the original needle-exchange bill, Assemblywoman Kerry
Mazzoni, D-San Rafael, said the new version isn't as broad as she would
have liked but is a good start.

"This is very positive," Mazzoni said. "It is greatly needed, and it will
save lives."

Regina Aragn, public policy director for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation,
said, "It is essential that any compromise agreement send a clear message
to local communities that needle-exchange programs are both legal and

The foundation, a strong supporter of Mazzoni's original bill, last week
released results of a Field Research Institute poll that indicated 69
percent of Californians favor needle-exchange programs to prevent the
spread of disease. Support among Bay Area residents was even higher: 83

Mazzoni's original bill, which she pulled back from the governor's office
to revise, cited studies that showed the programs prevent the spread of HIV
and AIDS, and also required public-health and law-enforcement officials to
be involved in any community-based needle-exchange program. That language
was stripped from the new version.

Mazzoni's new measure has to be approved by the Legislature before the
session ends next week. She said she has "no reason to believe the governor
will not sign the bill" because his staff approached her about writing a
new version.

Bustamante, Davis' press secretary, said the governor opposed Mazzoni's
original bill because it amounted to a state sanction of needle-exchange
programs, an issue that he said should be dealt with at the local, not
state, level.

Top Democratic officials have called on Davis to sign a needle-exchange
bill, including San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and 21 congressional
Democrats from California.  The sheriffs of two of the most populous
counties in the state -- San Francisco and Los Angeles -- also have written
Davis, arguing needle-exchange programs reduce HIV infections without
increasing drug use.

Mazzoni's first bill, however, was opposed by statewide organizations
representing police chiefs and sheriffs. John Lovell, a Sacramento lobbyist
for the groups, said programs that provide junkies with clean needles
violate anti-drug laws.

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